Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Writer's Responsibilities, or, Cate Versus Twilight

Back in June, my friend Mike asked me about Twilight. It went like this:

Mike: Have you ever seen the Twilight?
Cate: Believe me, sweetheart, you do NOT want to hear my opinions on Twilight.
Mike: Dude, they sparkle in the sun. Pretty much the best thing to ever happen to the vampire community.
Cate: Please stop talking unless you're going to tell me you hate Twilight with at least half of the fibers of your being.
Mike: Sorry, I've only seen the first two movies and I think they're cute, like The Little Mermaid or The Lion King.
Cate: Well, speaking as someone who's read all of the books and seen the first movie, I can tell you three things. 1) Stephenie Meyer is a terrible, sloppy writer. 2) Bella Swan is the weakest character I've ever read and an abysmal role model for girls. 3) The entire series reinforces rape culture in a way I haven't seen from anyone/anything. No joke, Bella and Edward's relationship fits ALL the recognized criteria of domestic abuse, and the series has done more damage (in my opinion) than Barbie dolls and Disney princesses combined.
Mike: Yeah, I don't analyze them, I just watch them.

Although I disagree with Mike about sparkling being the best thing to happen to vampires, I do appreciate daywalkers. But the point here, as you may have gathered, is not the vampires themselves. Rather, it's the way Meyer treats Bella Swan--and, by extension, each of the young women who find her story irresistible.

Of course, I'm not the first person to point out how ridiculous the Twilight series is, either in its written or cinematic form, nor am I the first to criticize the writing, characterizations, or lack of good life lessons. And Meyer is far from the only writer whose work or views on women deserves scrutiny (I am looking in your direction, V.S. Naipaul). But the fact is that Meyer, being a young adult (YA) author, has a certain responsibility to her audience.

Some people think that this is up for debate. I am not one of those people.

When I was in graduate school, I was lucky enough to study under Chris Lynch, whose work isn't known for its cheerfulness. For example, Inexcusable, his powerhouse of a novel, tells the story of a rape and its aftermath from the point of view of the rapist. Working with Lynch and reading his work taught me that not only is no topic out of bounds, as many YA advocates will tell you, but also that there is a great tradition of writers reaching out to teens through their works. Jack Gantos, Chris Crutcher, Lois Lowry, and Laurie Halse Anderson are a few examples of authors who tackle dark subjects that are pressing and important. 

After a semester spent with Lynch while reading all sorts of social issues-related YA novels, I decided that I wanted to be the kind of writer who pays attention to the message I'm sending to my entirely hypothetical readers. In fact, I was so fired up over finding his name in a Wall Street Journal article decrying "dark" YA lit that I sent him a congratulatory e-mail, writing, "I like working with dudes who write the kind of stuff that gets talked about. So thanks for being awesome."

Sarah Alderson, whose work I have never read, says, "Teenage readers are influenced by our words, by our stories. Make them count." This is my general feeling about the subject. Some authors take a narrower view, asserting that they only worry about being truthful. Libba Bray feels that "it would be dishonest of me to write a character without [...] flaws." But Bray's characters (in my limited experience) don't have the same flaws we see in Meyer's work. Bella is one-dimensional, a girl incapable of sticking up for herself, the kind of person who would rather act out in a reckless manner than face the fact that she is in a bad relationship. 

Other commentators think that telling a good story is paramount, such as Fiona Snyckers, who writes, "Teenagers, and indeed most children, have an uncanny ability to detect when they are being preached at, and their reaction to such preaching is almost always resentment. Nothing kills a book faster for a teen than the awareness that some adult agenda lies behind it." Of course, I agree that it's important to deliver a well-constructed story; every writer should strive to do so. But my gut reaction is that if you are preaching, you're doing something wrong in your writing. There is nothing bad about trying to convey a message; it's just that if your message isn't delivered thoughtfully and respectfully, with an understanding that teenagers have different sensibilities than adults, you need to try again.

Maybe I should be grateful that Meyer has given me--and others--an opportunity to figure out how we feel and strive harder to be good role models. In general, though, I'm just frustrated that I live in a world where abusive vampires are worshiped and good writing with a heart beating below it (pun only sort of intended) is banned--including, to my unending amusement/chagrin, my onetime professor's work.

Mike didn't mean to set off a debate when he asked me about Twilight. Meyer probably didn't mean to be so divisive when she wrote the series. Unfortunately, that's how Bella, et al, function in this world.


PS When I asked Mike if he'd mind me quoting him in this post, he was totally game. Thanks for the support, Mikey!

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